Before we make your head spin on whether a header upgrade is worthy or not, we first must know what a header is.
First, we differentiate a header from an exhaust manifold that comes stock with most cars. While they do the same job, the difference is that an exhaust manifold is a solid cast iron piece across all cylinders. In contrast, an exhaust header is made up of individual steel tubes for each exhaust port, welded to meet at a collector or several collectors to bring the exhaust gases down to a single pipe, ready to flow through the rest of the exhaust system.
Manufacturers use exhaust manifolds for a few reasons. Still, the two main ones are that cast header blocks are cheaper to produce and the fact that these thick cast-iron structures are great for holding in heat, are very durable, and help keep unwanted exhaust noise down. As enthusiasts, exhaust noises are most wanted.
And then, we get to the disadvantages of most stock exhaust manifolds, which are rough interior surfaces from casting results in low exhaust flow and unequal length of exhaust travel for each cylinder to meet at the collector.
Remember, more air = more power.
Where equal length headers come into play to help here is by ensuring that each the tube from the cylinder head to the collector is the same length, those exhaust pulses have the same distance to travel to get there. That way, there is always a clear path for the exiting exhaust to free up as much back pressure as possible for the next pulse coming back down that line, ensuring as close to ideal conditions for scavenging as possible.
This is where headers’ main advantage comes from and why such immense performance benefits in installing them.
Another reminder for those who like big-bore pipes is that a bigger header tube isn’t necessarily better. The process of scavenging relies on the vacuum created in that pipe, and too large a diameter would limit that effect.
This is why engines make more power with headers than if they just vented straight to the atmosphere directly from the cylinder head.
Another reminder for tuning your car is to make the rest of your exhaust system less restrictive before installing headers. This means installing larger-diameter, mandrel-bent exhaust pipes, and it means using freer-flowing mufflers. There will be no benefit to putting headers on if the exhaust flow is only going to be choked further down the line.
Different style headers provide varying sounds and power. Long tube headers supply the most power and increase the vehicle’s sound. Mid-length headers give power ratios and sound qualities somewhat less than long tube headers.
Horsepower and torque is the most significant benefit to installing aftermarket headers. Another advantage is the driver’s ability to open the car’s exhaust, which generates an appealing sound.
So, to summarize: Headers improve flow, make nice noises, and add a bit of power and torque.
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